Oh, Snap!

Local couple teaches Bryant students how to build -- and break -- homemade models of Portland bridges
by: Vern Uyetake, Nic Brumfield watches as his replica of the Burnside Bridge "twists" under added weight.

Lesson No. 1: Glue guns might smart a finger, but that pain is nothing compared to what ironworkers endured during the construction of Portland's famed bridges.

Lesson No. 2: Building a bridge is mighty difficult - especially when you're using popsicle sticks instead of steel.

There are so many lessons a kid can learn when it comes to the history and intricacies of bridges and how they were built, said Sharon Wood Wortman, known as the 'Bridge Lady' and author of 'The Portland Bridge Book.'

'Bridges can do a lot to enrich the world,' she said. 'There's something practical about a bridge, but they also open up the imagination.'

Because of Wortman's expertise, 5th and 6th graders at Bryant Elementary are now enlightened to the magic and mystery behind the bridges that connect the banks of the Willamette River.

In October, Wortman took the students on a 'Bridge Walk' across some of the structures, including a few that were new to them.

Back at Bryant, they drew pictures and wrote poems and essays about the experience.

Then, two weeks ago, the students began constructing their own bridge replicas using truss patterns (from the Marquam, Hawthorne, Burnside and Sellwood bridges), glue guns, popsicle sticks and other materials.

The assignment is part of the 'Bridge in a Box' curriculum designed by Wortman, a long-time bridge enthusiast and her husband, Ed, a field engineer who helped raise the Fremont Bridge and assisted in the more recent remodeling of the Hawthorne Bridge. It was the first time the Wortmans taught the lesson in a Lake Oswego elementary school.

'Nobody usually thinks about the bridges until they go for a walk or figure out how they're put together,' Sharon Wortman said.

Using the patterns to build a bridge from hand gives students a better understanding of how the bridges are structurally designed and how they function to hold weight, she added.

On Monday, Sharon and Ed returned to Bryant to help students test their bridges by loading them with weights to see how much they could carry before cracking or breaking. The all-time record is 76 pounds, the Wortmans said.

A number of student volunteers came forward to place their bridges between two chairs and begin adding various increments of weight inside an attached bucket already filled with 15 pounds of sand.

Between cheers, gasps and cries of 'Oh, snap!' and 'Holy crud!,' students listened intently for 'groaning' and watched for shifting in the bridges' structure.

Typically, a bridge's 'deck' will deflect or twist before the bridge gives out and falls to the floor. Ed Wortman encouraged the students to analyze the physics of each break.

Some students enthusiastically opted for 'mass destruction.' Others wanted to push their bridges to the breaking point, but stop before damage occurred. Students were excited and impressed.

So were the Wortmans.

'They held a lot of weight, considering the size of the bridges,' Ed Wortman said.

Even a small bridge can hold a lot - don't be deceived. That's one lesson Ed Wortman already knows quite well.

For more information on the Wortmans and their bridge curriculum, visit www.bridgestories.com.